Custom and Culture: Japanese National Holidays

July, August and September

In the last issue we looked at ‘Golden Week’, a period from late April to early May of concentrated national holidays and non-working days. This issue sees the final instalment of our national holiday series, when we will have described all 15 holidays laid down in the Public Holiday Law. As you will have noticed, each day commemorates something different, but I think that there is a common theme – gratitude and respect for nature and for each other, young and old. There could hardly be a better way to remember the importance of both than to celebrate them together as a nation and take a break from a routine day’s work.

Marine Day [Third Monday of July]

‘Express gratitude for the bounty of the ocean and wish for prosperity of the maritime nation Japan.’
Also known as Ocean Day (Umi no hi), this is the most recently established national holiday. The first Marine Day was held on 20 July 1996 but the date had been known as Marine Memorial Day since 1941. It marked the Meiji Emperor’s 1876 voyage in the Meiji-maru, the oldest surviving iron ship in Japan, built in Glasgow in 1873. Marine Memorial Day was set up to commemorate the Emperor’s return to Yokohama on 20 July of that year after an inspection of the Tōhoku region. There used to be a long gap between Golden Week and the next national holiday in September, so the establishment of Marine Day was much welcomed. Marine Day was celebrated on 20 July until 2003 when, in accordance with the Happy Monday system, it was moved to the third Monday in July. The Maritime Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism takes the lead in organising various events relating to the sea around this day.

Respect-for-the-Aged Day [Third Monday of September]

e-iss-04-07-2‘Respect the elderly for many years of their contributions to the society and celebrate their longevities.’
This holiday was enacted in 1966, relatively recently compared to Coming-of-Age Day (1949) and Children’s Day (1948). Its origins go back to 1947 when Nomadani-mura (currently Taka-cho) in Hyogo Prefecture declared 15 September as Old Folk’s Day (Toshiyori no hi) to mark respect for the elderly and to encourage preservation of their knowledge to help regenerate the village. The notion of ‘respect-for-the-aged’ day spread to the whole prefecture in 1950 and thence nationwide. Japan is well known for the longevity of its citizens and the centenarian population topped 50,000 in 2012 for the first time; the aging population combined with the decreasing birth rate is becoming an increasingly serious problem. Still, many older people are healthy and active, which is attributed to the traditional low-fat diet, strong community ties, affordable healthcare and generous pensions. The impressive achievements of Japanese elders occasionally make international news. In May this year, Miura Yūichirō became the oldest man to reach the summit of Mount Everest at the age of 80, and in 2012, at the age of 106, Shōchi Saburō was recognised as the world’s oldest person to complete a trip around the world by public transport. Perhaps Respect-for-the-Aged Day has inspired older people in Japan to challenge themselves and fulfil their potential without letting age get in their way.

Autumnal Equinox Day [Around September 23]

e-iss-04-07-1‘Honour the ancestors and remember the deceased.’
As with Vernal Equinox Day (around March 21), this has been a national holiday since 1948. It occurs on either 22 or 23 September, the date being declared in February of the previous year following up-to-date astronomical measurements.
For centuries farming villages prayed for a good harvest around the time of the Vernal Equinox. They then celebrated and gave thanks for the harvest around the Autumnal Equinox. During the Meiji era, the imperial court decided to enshrine and celebrate their ancestors twice a year at Vernal Equinox and Autumnal Equinox, and the custom rapidly spread nationwide. Traditionally people visit their ancestors’ graves around this date to pay their respects and reaffirm their gratitude, just as they do at the Vernal Equinox.

Nishioka Keiko, Development and Finance Officer